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An Exposition of Ernst Renan’s “What is a Nation”: Its Implication for Nigeria

 Topic: An Exposition of Ernst Renan’s “What is a Nation”: Its Implication for Nigeria

By Obiorah Ifenna


Across the ages, man had always concerned himself with unfolding political issues of his day. These political issues border on how he can live and dwell peacefully with others; owing to the fact that human history is filled with instances of war, conflicts, antagonism, injustices, oppression and inhumanity of man to his kind. In his search for peace, there arose a need for the implementation of ideas relevant for the achievement of peace and happiness in the lives of the people of the state; “since what constitutes political order is the necessary implementation of man’s idea for the realization of such ends” (Udeh Charles: 2009: 1).

Therefore, given that the society demands of its scholars, to be measures and moderators of social responsibility, Ernest Renan, in his “Civic Nationalism” availed the antidote to the numerous problems apparent in the many societies of the world that gave rise to the revolutions in the French world. Owing to the lessons learnt from the revolutions and the exigencies of the time he lived through, his civic nationalism was introduced. Hence, in response to the socio-political problems that beclouded the nineteenth century France, Renan projected the view that the countries of the world could be better if they are also nation-states, based principally on agreement and mutual consent rather than on some criteria such as dynasty, race, language, religion and culture, which he considered as false. Thus, with every intellectual tool imaginable, Renan deduced out of politics, theological and metaphysical elements, in which he considered the Nation as a “Soul and a spiritual Principle”. He puts it beautifully thus: “what then remains? We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics” (Renan: 1882: III: 4)

Renan’s idea on the ‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism’ stems from the suppositions that all people are equal and free. Thus, based on the three-fold principle of liberty, equality and fraternity, he opined that at the very foundation a civic nation lies on the social contract. Renan, just as Locke, thought that civic society is attainable through consent. This is because all political societies began with a democratic and universal consent of men in the state of nature; and with this same ingredient, its unity must be maintained. This democratic consent forms the very basis of political obligation. With these in mind, Renan, therefore, took upon himself a task to fashion a better idea for societies soaked with tension, war, violence, revolution, agitation and disagreement to remain one, with an intent of realizing peace and happiness to the lives of the people. 

Of many countries in the world experiencing the social predicament expressed above by Renan, Nigeria is the worst. According to Kelechukwu Ike, in his book “Where Do We Go From Fifty?”, “Nigeria is currently seating on geological time bomb” (Kelechukwu Ike: 2011: ix). Nigerians, just six years after independence, started clamouring for division. Many voices in Nigeria and even outside of it have cried so loud for so many years either for confederation or an outright division. This is because this entity called Nigeria is “weighed down not only by uncertainties, but also by moral, economic and political crises”.

Therefore, living in a time when there are so many agitations from many Nigerians to remain as one political unit, when actions and inactions of many clamours for division, then the civic nationalism of Renan seems to offer the solution to the current socio-political predicament we see ourselves in. Thus, there is a need to explore Renan’s socio-political ideas to see how it could be practically implied in the Nigerian situation; so as to restore a reasonable amount of peace and happiness to the agitating citizens. In all, the sole aim of this project is to explore extensively Renan’s ideas on nationhood, applying them to Nigerian predicament. 

This is an extract from the essay: 'An Exposition of Ernst Renan’s “What is a Nation”: Its Implication for Nigeria', written by Obiorah Ifenna . For the full version, send us an email on scholarsorgng@gmail.com You can also like our facebook page using the link:  https://web.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100071046720875 . You can also find us using the name ‘Scholars International’.



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